The technology behind 3-D entertainment has come a long way since those “land in your lap” sci-fi shockers of the 1950s, which could be viewed only by theater-goers willing to wear dorky cardboard spectacles with red and blue lenses. And we’re not just talking about advances at the cineplex as evidenced by movies like Monsters vs. Aliens or Up. Today some of Asia’s leading electronics companies are developing flat-panel displays and TVs they hope will soon add a new dimension to home theater systems, rejuvenating sales in the flagging audio-visual market.
Manufacturers are taking a variety of approaches, each testing the bounds of consumer acceptance in what is still a miniscule market. Mitsubishi and Samsung are selling rear projection 3-D TVs. JVC in April launched a 46-in., 3-D LCD monitor aimed at business users. On May 27, South Korea’s LG Display announced it was developing a 23-in. 3-D screen. Hyundai created a 46-in. LCD TV that can display 3-D images, but it’s available only in Japan, costs $5,000, and only shows special programming offered just a few hours a day by a Japanese satellite network.
Because the displays that are currently available cost thousands of dollars, it’s clear 3-D is not ready for the masses. But as content increasingly becomes available, some analysts are predicting that sales could be about to take off. “In 2009, we hope that the 3-D market will start booming with LG, JVC and Panasonic as they start to commercialize their 3-D, flat-panel displays,” says DisplaySearch senior analyst Jennifer Colegrove. “I expect more 3-D televisions to come to market in the near future.”
Panasonic is on a major push to make 3-D a must-have for consumers by creating an entire ecosystem for the technology. The consumer electronics giant is working on high-definition, 3-D home theater systems, including a monster 103-in. plasma display. Panasonic also set up an R&D facility in Hollywood to develop 3-D technology for Blu-ray players, so consumers can purchase content. And in April, the company announced that it was developing a professional production system, including a camera, for shooting 3-D movies and TV shows. “This time we might get right,” says Eisuke Tsuyuzaki, vice-president of corporate development at Panasonic.
Tsuyuzaki notes that consumers today are willing to pay nearly 50% more for the 3-D experience when they go to theaters. “A 3-D screen although it’s a rarity does about 2.5 times more in revenue than a conventional screen,” he says. “That’s helping to pay for the rollout of digital cinema, and that is helping studios create more 3-D production. From that perspective,” he says, “it makes sense to try it across all forms of distribution and packaged media” such as Blue-ray discs. In addition to Up, Hollywood is moving forward with several new 3-D releases this year, including non-computer generated films such as James Cameron’s Avatar and A Christmas Carol from Robert Zemeckis. “This could potentially be something big,” Tsuyuzaki says.
And those dorky glasses You may still need to wear them. Some manufacturers are working on ways to display 3-D-like effects automatically on screen. But Panasonic’s technology incorporates something it calls “active shutter” glasses. They receive infrared signals emitted from the display that cause the lenses to rapidly switch on and off alternatively, which tricks the brain into processing the twin images into a single 3-D image.
Not all companies are as enthusiastic about 3-D’s growth potential. In April, Philips decided that there wasn’t promise to justify its investments and axed its 3-D display division after about 3 years of development. Colegrove says that the electronics companies pushing the technology are the rear projection and plasma display makers that are trying to beef up their product lines as more popular LCD TVs eat into their market share. “They have to think about something new, something niche, something special to make their products alive and more popular again,” says Colegrove.
Analysts say 3-D will likely be a novelty product for the foreseeable future, largely because the TVs will cost more than most consumers are willing to spend and because content will remain limited. Japan’s 3-D display market is expected to reach about $220 million a year by 2014 but could grow to nearly $4.4 billion by 2019, according to Yano Research. Panasonic’s Tsuyuzaki says that, eventually, the technology could have a huge impact. “Think of what could happen,” he says. “Anything visual could become 3-D. That is a huge rejuvenation of the audio-visual market.”
See TIME’s pictures of the week.